OF ALL sports, tennis is surely the one best enjoyed in summer, or the few weeks of the year when the sun deigns us worthy of a few rays. Who wants to dust off their racket to play indoors or under grey skies on some unforgiving-to-the-knees all-weather court? Very few people, if our dearth of top-class players is anything to go by.
But when clouds clear and the sun blazes high, the prospect of scampering after a furry yellow ball instantly seems infinitely more appealing. Throw in the allure of a pristine grass court, which allows for showboating diving volleys, and you have something approaching the quintessential English leisure pursuit.
But for those neither as drilled as Andy Murray or blessed with a Federeresque talent, lessons are well worth considering if you are to cut a dash on the lawn. And there are few on these shores more qualified to elicit your inner Bjorn Borg than a former professional who has graced the finest grass courts of all: Wimbledon.
Which is where Stoke Park, the iconic stately home-cum-country club and hotel, comes in. The Buckinghamshire resort offers lessons with its in-house former pro Lee Childs, who beat Nikolay Davydenko and played Rafael Nadal in four championships. They also boast six of arguably the finest grass courts outside the All England Club, which have been graced by the likes of Murray, Pete Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic at the annual Boodles Challenge.
While lessons are available around the year to members and corporate events can be arranged, Stoke Park is hosting a Bank Holiday tennis break, which includes eight hours of lessons with Childs or another ex-pro and two nights’ full board in immaculate surroundings.
All abilities are catered for, as I found to my relief when Childs put me through my paces. While not an utter liability, tennis is not my strongest sport (it ranks somewhere between archery and ice hockey) and I arrived determined to nail my dodgy serve. Childs patiently gave me a few killer tips that worked wonders, and I was soon acing imaginary opponents with glee. He also tactfully identified my backhand as my real weakness and, by the end of my session, which can be tailored to any requirements, I was snapping returns cross-court with ferocious abandon.
While my on-court action was invigorating, fun and instructive, Stoke Park really comes into its own the moment you discard tennis shoes and explore its other attractions. A stroll through the 350 acres of lush parkland, which includes the outstanding 27-hole Stoke Poges golf course (immortalised in Goldfinger), is the perfect way to unwind, while a host of treatments are on offer at the on-site spa, which boasts its own heated indoor pool.
Lunch is in one of two informal eateries but the real treat is an evening meal at the Dining Room, Stoke Park’s elegant and, frankly, delicious restaurant. Roast wild boar was a joy, while pan-fried scallops with baby fennel stood out among the starters, and all watched over by an expert maitre d’ who had a touch of the camp Captain Mainwaring about him.
With aching limbs soothed and palates delighted, it was time to retire to my impeccably decorated room – one of 49 split between the mansion and pavilion – which featured a king-size bed and marble bathroom. Just because you don’t play like a Wimbledon champion does not mean you can’t live like one now and then.
The May Bank Holiday Tennis Break at Stoke Park includes eight hours of lessons over two days, two nights’ accommodation plus breakfast, lunch and dinner on both days. Cost is £565 per person based on two sharing. Call 01753 717171 or visit www.stokepark.com
ALTERNATIVES | GRASS COURTS IN LONDON
Queen’s Club, Palliser Road, W14 9EQ
Full membership required to use grass courts. To join you must be proposed and seconded by existing members, buy a redeemable share and pay an annual subscription of £820-£1,640. Tel: 0207 386 3430.
Southfields Lawn Tennis Club, Gressenhall Road, SW18 1PQ
Two grass courts available to members only; cost of membership £190 per year plus £25 one-off joining fee. For enquiries call 020 8788 8697.